Abductions in the American Revolution

Attempts to Kidnap George Washington, Benedict Arnold and Other Military and Civilian Leaders

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About the Book

The tactic of kidnapping enemy leaders, used in the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, dates to the American Revolution. George Washington called such efforts “honorable” and supported attempts to kidnap the British commander-in-chief (twice), Benedict Arnold (after he turned traitor) and Prince William Henry (a future king of Great Britain). Washington in turn was targeted at his Morristown winter headquarters by British dragoons who crossed the frozen Hudson River. New Jersey Governor William Livingston performed a patriotic service by going to considerable lengths to avoid being abducted by the Loyalist raider James Moody.
Sometimes these operations succeeded, as with the spectacular captures of Major General Charles Lee, Major General Richard Prescott, Brigadier General Gold Selleck Silliman, and North Carolina’s governor Thomas Burke. Sometimes they barely failed, as with the violent attempt by British secret service operatives against Major General Philip Schuyler and the mission by British dragoons against Thomas Jefferson. Some of the abducted, such as signer of the Declaration of Independence Richard Stockton and Delaware’s governor John McKinly, suffered damage to their reputations. The kidnapper risked all—if caught, he could be hanged. This book covers more than thirty major attempted and successful abductions of military and civilian leaders from 1775 to 1783, from Maine to Georgia, and including two in Great Britain.

About the Author(s)

Independent historian Christian McBurney has written books on the efforts to capture Generals Charles Lee and Richard Prescott and on the Rhode Island Campaign in the Revolutionary War. He lives in Kensington, Maryland.

Bibliographic Details

Christian McBurney
Format: softcover (6 x 9)
Pages: 232
Bibliographic Info: 22 photos & illustrations, 3 maps, appendices, notes, bibliography, index
Copyright Date: 2016
pISBN: 978-1-4766-6364-7
eISBN: 978-1-4766-2429-7
Imprint: McFarland

Table of Contents

Table of Contents


Acknowledgments vii

Preface 1

I. The Fighting Begins (April 1775 to June 1776) 7

From Lexington and Concord to Mount Vernon 7

Was There a Plot to Kidnap King George III? 11

The Tory Plot to Kidnap Washington in New York City 14

II. The Fall of New York City and New Jersey (July 1776 to March 1778) 20

Signers of the Declaration of Independence 20

John Fell in the Provost 27

The Capture of Major General Charles Lee 33

Richard Witham Stockton, the Land Pilot 43

The Retaliatory Capture of Major General Richard Prescott 48

George Washington Supports Kidnapping Attempt Against British Headquarters in New York City 57

III. The Fall of Philadelphia (September 1777 to April 1778) 61

Delaware’s Chief Executive Is Abducted from His House 61

Congress Responds to Tory Kidnappings 63

John Paul Jones Strikes Fear in Great Britain 69

IV. The War in the North (January 1778 to February 1781) 72

Multiple Attempts to Kidnap Governor William Livingston of New Jersey 72

Retaliatory Kidnappings: The Cases of Connecticut’s General Silliman and Long Island’s Judge Jones 80

Raid Across the Frozen Hudson River: The Attempt to Kidnap Washington at Morristown 82

Washington Attempts to Kidnap the Traitor Benedict Arnold in New York City 96

Washington’s Second Attempt Against the British Commander-in-Chief in New York City 103

The Abduction and Dramatic Escape of General Peleg Wadsworth in Maine 108

V. The War in the South (January 1781 to August 1781) 112

“This greatest of all traitors”: Attempts to Kidnap Arnold in Virginia 112

Banastre Tarleton Almost Bags Thomas Jefferson 117

When the Kidnapper Becomes the Hunted: The Case of Benjamin Cleveland 124

The Execution of Isaac Hayne 127

VI. British Secret Service Operations in Upstate New York and Vermont (July 1781 to June 1782) 134

The British Attempt to Capture Major General Philip Schuyler at Albany 134

The Great Kidnap Caper of 1781 Falls Apart 142

Thomas Johnson: British Agent or Double Agent? 145

VII. Yorktown and Beyond (September 1781 to September 1783) 149

David Fanning Captures North Carolina’s Governor 149

Murder in North Carolina and Georgia 153

Washington Plans to Abduct a Future King of Great Britain from New York City 157

Living with the Risk of Kidnappings 166

Appendix A: Letter from Colonel James Abeel Summarizing

Information Regarding the Raid Intended to Capture Washington in February 1780 169

Appendix B: Colonel Matthias Ogden’s Plans for Capturing Prince William Henry in New York City in March 1782 171

Chapter Notes 173

Bibliography 203

Index 213

Book Reviews

“the most innovative look at the American Revolution I have read in a long time. The breadth of research Christian McBurney invested into this book is astounding. It is McBurney’s diligent research that allows him to write intricate stories about kidnappings in a way that makes the history digestible and fun.